High-risk encounters: Muzzle position and presentation to the target

Whichever technique you may subscribe to, it is universally accepted to keep your finger off the trigger and indexed until ready to fire

An officer confronts a suspect in a known high-risk encounter. At the moment the officer first spots the suspect, he draws his pistol and begins to give them commands.

The officer commands the suspect to stop and to raise his hands over his head. The suspect almost immediately complies with the officer’s commands. The officer is able to visually scan the suspect and sees no sign of an accessible weapon.

The suspect has submitted to the officer's commands and is following directions now.

This is a scenario that has played out many times in the field, as well as in in-service and basic academy training. It is well understood that in those first few moments that the officer may actually be covering the suspect with the muzzle of his firearm.

The question that seems to be, "What should the officer do with the muzzle after the suspect has submitted and the officer believes the suspect has no immediately accessible weapons?"

I've seen three different primary solutions presented. Each has its own pros and cons.

1.) The officer should remain "on-target."

2.) The officer should move the muzzle to the side of the suspect but stay on the same horizontal plane for the presented center mass. I am not sure if this technique has an official name, so for the purposes of this article let’s refer to it as "Muzzle to Side."

3.) The officer should move the muzzle to "low ready" so that the muzzle is no longer covering the suspect but is on the same vertical plane for the presented center mass.

For a rough illustration of each of these, please refer to the photo below — I could not find a good photo showing a suspect with arms raised but this shows the general idea.

On Target
As described above, in this technique the officer will knowingly leave the muzzle covering the presented center mass. Center mass may be different in each situation depending on what the officer may be able to target.

In our illustration, the suspect presents a very traditional center mass target. In any case, the thought remains the same: if a bullet were to be fired from the weapon it will directly strike the suspect in the presented center mass.

The advocates of this technique rightly claim that the officer will already be on target if he needs to shoot. Some have added that everybody might have a weapon so the officer needs to be ready to fire as fast as possible.

The opponents to this technique refer to one of the primary range and firearm handling rules, "Never cover anything with the muzzle that you do not intend to shoot."

They read this rule to mean, “Intend to shoot...right now.”

If the suspect is standing with his hands raised far above his head and is following commands, a reasonable officer would not consider shooting “right now.”

This technique can also block the officer’s view of the suspect’s waistband and lower body with his own firearm.

Opponents point to the possibility of an unintentional discharge directly striking the suspect. We know that unintentional discharges can happen from startle or stumble reactions.

If an officer were to send a screaming bullet into a suspect that is standing with his hands raised far above his head and is following commands, he would be hard pressed to justify the shooting.

Muzzle to Side
This technique prescribes that the officer should move the muzzle off the suspect and to the side. Advocates of this technique point out that it solves the issue of an unintentional discharge directly striking the suspect, but it may cause the officer to unintentionally cover someone else that is down range and not within the officer’s narrowed focal view/angle.

Advocates also point out that the officer will now be better able to view the suspect's waistband and lower body, as well as the suspect's movements.

Opponents of this technique (and the Low Ready) point out that the officer is not on target and will have to re-acquire the target if the suspect was to suddenly produce a firearm and the officer needs to fire. Their belief is that the split-second that may be saved by actually being on target might mean the difference in saving the officer's life.

Others believe that there will be no recognizable time difference since the arms will move back to target before the brain has fully realized the need to fire.

Opponents also claim a fault in the biomechanics of the lateral side-to-side muzzle movement. Under the stress of having to quickly swing the firearm along to horizontal plane back to center mass, there is a high likelihood of an over swing causing a miss of the first and most critical round(s).

Low Ready
This technique also prescribes that the officer should move the muzzle off the suspect, but in this case, pointed toward the ground directly in front of the subject. Low Ready muzzle position will be affected by the distance relationship between the officer and the suspect. In other words, as the officer closes distance on the suspect he will have to lower the muzzle more in order not to cover the suspect with the muzzle.

As pointed out above, opponents and advocates have differing opinions on the pros/con of the timing of bringing the firearm back to presented center mass and getting rounds on target if needed.

Advocates of this technique also point out that it solves an issue of an unintentional discharge directly striking the suspect, but opponents counter by pointing out that an unintentional discharge may still skip-strike the suspect. Advocates respond that it would be easier to defend a skip-shot than a direct shot.

Advocates claim this technique superior to the "Muzzle to Side" because of the above-described biomechanics.  While the side-to-side swing has a tendency to cause over swing, the raising of the muzzle from a "Low Ready" up to presented center mass is less likely to produce a miss of those first critical round(s).

Whichever technique you may subscribe to, it is universally accepted by all the techniques and trainers to keep your finger off the trigger and indexed until ready to fire.

I know which of the described techniques I favor and teach, but I do not wish to overtly identify it. I would like to hear your thoughts and comments - add them in the comments area below.

About the author

Ed Flosi is a retired police sergeant from San Jose, California. Ed has a unique combination of practical real world experience and academic background. He has worked several assignments including: Field Training Program, Training Unit, Narcotics, Special Operations — K9 Handler, Research and Development and Custody Facility Supervisor. He has qualified as an expert witness in state and federal courts in police practices/force options and is the Principle Instructor for PROELIA Defense and Arrest Tactics. He has a Master of Science degree from California State University Long Beach. Ed is a Certified Force Analyst through the Force Science Research Center.

Contact Ed Flosi.

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